Sunday, December 28, 2008

Small Chain Pizza Goodness

While I'm not always the advocate of chain restaurants, Il Vicino in Clayton, Missouri (the St. Louis area) falls in that short list of exceptions. With around eight locations total, this is definitely worth a stop for lunch or dinner.
In our search for something nearby our hotel on a Sunday evening, the concierge suggested we put this one on the list to consider. Thank you concierge! While it starts with ordering at a counter, the service after is very good and the menu varied enough to please. The focus is primarily on made-to-order pizzas, with pastas, sandwiches, soups and salads also on the list. The roasted garlic tomato soup was some of the best I've had, however the Minestrone did seem to contain about every veggie they could find chopped into large hunks. (I prefer a smaller, more easily consumed diced version of veggies in soup, but that's just me.)
Then there was the pizza. Ranking as probably one of the top five pizzas I've had, to say it's good is not really fair. It starts with a wood oven baked thin crust. Topped with a variety of choices, but the one I chose had roasted red peppers. Ordinarily I avoid any peppers on pizza because most chefs simply dice up a red pepper and toss it raw onto the pizza. It comes out crunchy, and I don't care for the texture. The only things that should crunch on a pizza are a really crisp thin crust or bacon. Beyond that, it should be spicy, ooey, gooey goodness. So when I ordered it without the peppers and it arrived decorated in red strips I was apprehensive. Thankfully I gave it a try. Red pepper, with all that rich flavor and none of the offensive raw crunch. Yes! Oh, it had some other toppings too including chicken, fontina cheese and sun dried tomatoes. All in all, a mighty fine pie.
Across the table from me, my husband had pretty noteworthy pizza. The sausage on his pizza was fantastic, probably some of the best I've had anywhere.
Il Vicino has a small corner cafe appeal, it's cozy yet a reasonable choice for a small family to dine. It's one of the few places that reminds me of restaurants in Italy, minus the long-aged feel that seems just natural to all the eateries there. Give it a few hundred years and they'll be right at home. In the mean time, I hope they don't change the recipes!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The World Chicken Festival

For a classic Southern festival with all the character, odd items for sale and next to every food possible deep-fried, the World Chicken Festival in London, Kentucky is a prime example. Every summer this small town opens up its doors to the world and according to locals about 300,000 people pour in for all the festivities. Less than twenty miles down the road from the home to the original KFC in Corbin, Kentucky, London hosts the yearly festival over several closed off blocks downtown. Besides, any event that advertises the "worlds largest skillet" is worth checking out.

We spent a couple of hours roaming the street, ducking into booths of local wares, t-shirts, toys to tempt the younger crowd, and of course a few places with items pawned off as local with those little "made in china" stickers still prominently affixed. For those looking to mingle with the unnaturally gorgeous types that live in tv-land, this isn't the place. It's a place to disappear in a t-shirt clad denim world. That infamous skillet is located at one end of main street; the line for chicken meals was long enough that despite my strong desire to consume something from a skillet so large it requires a garden rake to stir, I gave in to the call of a shorter line for funnel cake instead. It was a tough decision, mass quantities of fried chicken or a funnel cake... hmm... fried and artery clogging in the sweet or savory form... Either one has a truly satisfying effect.

Despite the size of the crowd and location, parking wasn't terribly difficult or expensive. Rather than starting at the nearby lemonade stand where they didn't even make a pretense of trying to hide the Country Time Instant Mix they were using to make their $5 a glass "homemade" lemonade, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch on the way to Main Street. House's Restaurant was a real find. The food was good, but what really made it exceptional was the hospitality of owners Dean and Doris and their really cool pool hall in back. Decorated with quirky message signs and memorabilia and with the tunes provided by a real jukebox (the kind that plays 45 singles) the pool hall was the kind of place you could hang out for hours and never get bored, while never really doing much either. Owner Doris is there grilling up burgers daily, and it's clearly one of those fixtures in the area; the restaurant has been in the same spot since 1963. Well worth the stop on 4th Street, plus it's right on the way to Main street and the Chicken Festival.

To compensate for the overload of inevitable fried goodies that ultimately most any visitor to the festival will be tempted into consuming, the day starts with a 5K run. It certainly made me feel better knowing that I'd prepaid my penance for the funnel cake I ate that afternoon. Plus the course for the race was interesting, and definitely hilly enough to be challenging. For those who are not into such a hardy wake-up, sleeping in until the parade starts at around 11am is a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Overall it's worth a drive, but at 7 hours one-way, I'll probably not make it a yearly pilgrimage. But if I did go back, I'd probably wait in line for a piece of chicken.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Patti's Pies

So if you were to have a good meal at a restaurant back in the 1880's, would it have included a list of around thirty different pies, many of which are topped with enough meringue to reach 9 inches high? In those days there wasn't a Denny's or IHOP in nearly every town, much less a variety of deserts to compare to the modern day choices.

But at Patti's 1880's Settlement in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, you can kick it old school... really old school... and get your choice of a whole lot of pies in a somewhat kitschy 1880's style setting. The restaurant sits among floral and plant gardens, sculptures, pens holding a odd collection of barnyard critters and a bit of a small town on the lake. (See photo at right of one of the oddest chickens I've ever seen. I honestly thought it was a dog at first.) Ladies wearing long simple floral print dresses take orders and rattle off the list of pies from memory to full patrons who just keep on eating anyway (me included.) The menu includes plenty of choices of good southern food in generous portions, including fresh homemade potato chips, which themselves are a treat not to be missed. The pies... they were something to behold, in all their massive glory. Just looking at the miles of meringue waiting to be consumed was blissful. Oh, and they do have pies that aren't meringues that are pretty amazing too. The Chess Pie, Bill's Boatsinker Pie and the Dutch Peach Pie were all amazing in their own way, and honestly I couldn't choose a favorite of them all, they were all that impressively good.

I've been asked more than once how do I find these places? This one was recommended to my dad, and it was just a few miles out of the way on our trip toward eastern Kentucky. The recommended dish was the Pork Chops and they were definitely pretty outstanding. If they took away the "theme park" of the place and just kept the menu with all its tasty bits intact, it would be worth making a stop. It's the added theme (and convenient gift shop) that brings in the busloads of tourists on their own treks across the state. I can't say I blame them for doing what pays the bills; just don't stop making those pies. Those will bring the foodies like me back, and have us sending our friends by to sit a spell too.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

About Town in Fredericksburg, Texas

There's a certain set of elements common to the small, southern, tourist-friendly town that makes these types of places easily identifiable. For the tourist, they center around a cluster of a few blocks containing local specialty shops, or at least shops that put up a "local" appearance. Mixed in are a few restaurants that primarily focus on the area's reputation or heritage, from Victorian to German to whatever nickname the town has garnered over the years. Parking is always limited and awkward, and often the buildings are presented as old, regardless of their real age, as a way to draw in the nostalgia-seekers and history buffs. And there's almost always one good sweet shop or chocolatier selling their decadent treats to tourists needing a sugar-fix or a good way to truly blow their diet to smithereens.

I've been to a number of these towns, and when they aren't quite as well known beyond about a 200 mile radius, they tend to be more relaxing and maintain their charm. Once they reach much beyond that, they morph into something entirely different; they become a haven for rednecks, a tourist trap complete with twenty-seven miniature golf courses and traffic that slows to a crawl. When that change becomes imminent, I scratch them off my travel destination list. I've seen what both look like, and fortunately there's enough of the good kind left that I don't think we're in danger of them all going downhill to become the next version of "hillbilly hell."

Fredericksburg shares the basics of the better type of these small towns. Parking isn't quite as difficult, although it is somewhat limited. The class of shops there is a bit of a step up from the typical corner ten-dollar t-shirt stands and trinket shops; those looking for designer label clothing can shop here quite well. Crowds were very moderate, and the main street blocks are a mostly flat, easily accessible area to roam around during the day. It's clear that a number of the shops aren't someone's dream business where they've poured every last penny of savings into making it happen. Someone has provided quite generous funding so that no detail goes unnoticed, from the flooring to the light fixtures and every inch in-between. Not all are this way, but enough to make them worth noting.

The German heritage of the area shows in the restaurant menus, schnitzel in about every form is commonplace, as well as German beer, beer and more beer. Did I mention that they clearly must move a lot of German beer? While there, my husband and I went to August E's for dinner one night and The Auslander Biergarten another evening. Both were good, though I will say I liked the atmosphere and food overall a bit better at August E's.

For hotel, we chose a suite at the Fredericksburg Inn & Suites. It's well located for convenient access to the shopping and dining district. For the price, it wasn't bad but I would probably choose something a little quieter and newer for any return trips to the area. With the old school outside entrances to the rooms and a courtyard in the middle with a large pool, it's going to be a bit noisy by design. The staff there was exceptionally friendly and helpful, which these days is a very pleasant find. The included continental breakfast was worth stopping to eat, and better than many others I've found.

Fredericksburg was our home base for the trip, but we spent a good deal of time driving the back roads of Texas Hill Country. The quality of roads that seem to be completely out in the middle of nowhere is pretty impressive. Another noteworthy thing was the friendly nature of other drivers. Anytime we were behind someone that was traveling a bit slower than we would prefer to go, all we had to do was wait a minute. As soon as it was reasonable to do so, they would pull off to the far right side of the lane, using the shoulder of the road as much as possible to allow us to pass. If only all slower drivers went to Texas for a little driving lesson... sigh. On Saturday, we made a lunch stop at Frio Canyon Motorcycle Stop in Leakey, Texas. Talk about your obscure places, this is up on the list of out-of-the-way eateries that's worth finding just for the experience. The eclectic collection of motorcycles, cars and other unusual motorized devices made for entertainment just walking through the parking lot. Oh and they serve food too.

Also just a few miles east of Fredericksburg is Wildseed Farms. Their primary business is wildflower seed used throughout the US in highway areas for erosion control and other purposes. At their Fredericksburg store, they have a large selection of garden plants and gardening items, decorative accessories, locally produced foods like honey and preserves. They also have a $5 tour of their Butterfly Haus and trial gardens. For a amateur photographer or hobbyist, this place will virtually guarantee a need to go buy more camera memory cards on the way back into town. I clicked away until I saw the dreaded "CF Full" on the display and let that be my indicator I'd been behind the lens long enough. (See picture at left from the Butterfly Haus and above from the trial gardens. )

I'd rank Fredericksburg up in the group of still really undiscovered small tourist-friendly towns with places like Blowing Rock, North Carolina or St. Charles, Missouri. It's a bit more upscale like those two towns, but with the benefit of Texas Hill Country roads right at it's doorstep, it does have some extra mileage. The only downside I see is that it's a 13 hour drive to get there. That's a long way to drive, especially when a significant portion of the plan after I get there is to go for a drive.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Back to Nashville

Recently I made my yearly pilgrimage to Nashville to see Alton Brown's seminar. As always, it was well worth the trip and he has a fun and informative talk. I always come away with a case of the "wants" for new toys that he's using on stage. This year was no exception, he used a Thermal Circulating Bath to slowly cook beef spareribs. (See picture at left.) I hope that Alton is right in his theory that we'll be seeing these machines become more consumer level in usability, size and price. I just don't have a deep abiding love of ribs, and so far I've not found a recipe that is so spectacular as to justify lightening my wallet by a few thousand dollars. Get the cost down into the few hundred range and it might get more appealing.

The event was at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, as it has been the last couple of years. It has been renovated which is nice, but the details were skipped somewhat. It seems the quality of maintenance has declined over the last couple of years. The resort has become very much a convention oriented hotel, with I suspect a grand total of about five rooms with king beds in the whole facility. Despite reserving a king bed room three years in a row, I've yet to get one. Apparently the whole Gaylord reservation system is a disaster as I haven't gotten the right type room I've reserved anytime I've been to any Gaylord location. Not once. The hotel overall is still worth visiting just because the immense indoor gardens are a visual treat. They're a shutterbug's idea of a fun house, giving me a chance to hone my mad photography skills.

Within the property is Old Hickory Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant heavily oriented to the carnivore. The atmosphere and presentation are excellent, but the food was a bit disappointing. Previous visits were better but this time didn't impress me all that much, especially for the price. The restaurants overall on the property tend to be overpriced; and while the buffets offer a plentiful variety, they're just moderate in quality and taste.

Saturday morning provided us a chance to meet Alton during a breakfast Meet & Greet. The staff there put together a well run event that morning, with a nice variety of interesting dishes that I wouldn't expect to find on any buffets there. They came with the recipes too, so I've already repeated a couple of them at home. The food at this part of the event served as a clear indicator that while they do have the ability to serve up some quality dishes, the corporate rules don't let them showcase these talents in the restaurants. The presentation was great too; if I could have found a way to get my hands on the "portable flat-top" they used to cook the Turkey Re-Hash, I'd have one right now. Not that I have a clue what I'd use it for, but it's one of those culinary goodies that drives me into finding recipes to justify it's existence in my kitchen. Or garage as would be the case here. This thing is pretty sizable. I appreciate the helpfulness of the chef manning the devise, as he was quite happy to show off that slab of cooking goodness. (See picture at right.)

On Saturday evening we found Macke's, a small and obviously somewhat not well known delicious restaurant. Patrons should be lined up out the door of this place. We had excellent food all around! The shrimp appetizer was phenomenal, as well as the low country boil. I believe the menu changes seasonally, which definitely makes me want to go back more than once. It was quiet and the setting perfect for a relaxing dinner to end a great day of entertainment, education and downright fun.

It's a Gamble: Food away from the Interstate

Sometimes when you venture off the known food road you're rewarded with a memorable experience. Those aren't always the best food experience but it's one of those risks generally worth taking. On the way to Texas hill country my husband and I stopped at Dixie Diner in Texarkana. The food was mostly food service bland but the music was funny. For some truly odd country music this is the place. The example that sticks with me most was the song where the only lyrics I could catch were "chicken fried". Now that I think about it, one other singer did seem to have an abnormal fixation with the phrase "visibly shaken". I'm not really sure why either would inspire an entire song dedicated to their wondrous phraseology, but someone deemed it necessary. We also made a stop at Penny's Diner, somewhere in southern Texas. It was another instance of the setting made the meal better. The waitress was chatty, but in that good southern hospitality sort of way and the place definitely had the 50's long metal diner building style down quite well.

I wouldn't really recommend either diner, but they were worth a good laugh and provided sustenance. Not every off-the-beaten-path choice is a perfect winner. It could also be that I've finally traveled enough to become a tough customer to surprise and impress.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tea Time

The Little Tea Shop in downtown Memphis got my attention when it was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Its always nice to find some new good food not so far away that only other hard core crazy food junkies can imagine driving (or flying) that far just to eat.

While I would not put The Little Tea Shop on the places-worth-driving-thousands-of-miles-to list, it is worth finding parking in downtown Memphis to get there. Each patron gets a copy of the paper menu with a pencil. Despite the "tea room" name, this meat-and-three diner has menu of daily choices followed by other classic dishes and deserts. My favorite portion of the meal was the cornbread sticks. I know true cornbread aficionados would cringe that it's not made in the traditional round cast-iron skillet but these are really good. Besides, in stick form you get more of the outside crusty goodness that gets consumed first anyway. The daily special fried catfish was quite good, as well as the chicken breast and the corned beef & cabbage.

From the outside, this isn't a place I'd likely have spotted from the street, much less stopped. The atmosphere is relaxed, and clearly this is the place to see and be seen among the locals, but not in an arrogant sort of way. The few non-regulars that day included myself and my group, plus those brave souls who'd ventured away from their revelry at Graceland during an event known locally as Dead Elvis Week. The service was friendly but the clearly small wait staff struggled to keep up. I've watch just enough of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives to tell when the host Guy Fieri is really into a place, and he seemed to really enjoy this stop. I guess if I ever meet him I owe him a meal for pointing out a few local gems that I might not have found otherwise.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Quick Restaurant Review

A couple of blog-worthy places that I visited while in Little Rock were Loca Luna and The Hop Diner.

While subscribing to that "loud means good" trend I've seen in what's often the local hot places, Loca Luna is definitely a place for the cool kids to hang out. However the salsa makes it worth bringing the earplugs and digging in. The cheese dip is good, but the roasted red pepper and jalapeno salsa is good yet not as tongue-incinerating as the name might sound. The wood-fired pizza oven produced a tasty crisp crust pizza as well. Desert was a bit lacking but not bad.

The Hop Diner had a truly fantastic burger. Located downtown near the Rivermarket, the menu features a small but mostly diner type food choices of sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs. The turkey melt was also tasty; it arrives served on seared Parmesan bread, which is something I can't resist.

Both are worth checking out if you're in the area and looking for a good meal. I wouldn't rate either one as a Must-Visit, but I'm glad I went to both restaurants.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

What a Hotel Should Be

Last night my husband and I were in Little Rock for the evening and stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. After my trip to Atlanta, I was a bit apprehensive of the quality of nearly any hotel. Not that my Atlanta experience was that bad, but it left just enough of one to dampen my enthusiasm about another night in a hotel.
Thank you, Crowne Plaza of Little Rock. Thanks for having someone greet me at the door when I walked in. Thanks for having such a beautifully clean room, following through completely on the renovations to the building, and providing an adequate number of both pillows and towels right from the start. This hotel deserved to wear a banner proclaiming the "Whatever, Whenever" slogan that the W Hotels touted yet fell flat on delivering. The staff was friendly and seemed to bend over backward to help with any needs. We chose a room on the Club Floor, which I think was a wise choice for us. I do think the other floors are probably an equally good value, but for minimal price difference and the added amenities, the added expense was money well spent. The club floor had a lounge that included evening cocktails and hors d'oeuvres as well as breakfast the next morning. The food served wasn't the typical sad quality heat & eat steam table foodstuff, it was actually pretty tasty. I'd even describe the cookies as really, really good! Unlike the last hotel, the bottled water in the room was free. I've paid upwards of $40 for hotel breakfast elsewhere that didn't compare to what I ate this morning. It wasn't a 5-star gourmet breakfast, but it was good.

I know Top Ten lists are so cliche and overdone, but I'm going to go there anyway. There are a few things I look for in a quality hotel, and this one covered them all quite well. Some of those, not in any particular order, include:
1. Curtains can be closed to create a truly dark sleeping environment. They took it one step further providing a "Curtain Clip." Close those shades up and at 9am and the room had barely the faintest sign that we'd gone from night to day.
2. Quiet. Period. I have little tolerance for the herd of elephants on the floors above me, and of course being on the top floor helps. I didn't hear hallway noise either, despite being in very close proximity to an elevator. Going above and beyond, they provided earplugs, a sleep mask and even a CD of soothing sounds or something like that.
3. Don't put a glass top on the desk. If it's a business hotel, as this one is marketed, make it business friendly by making using my optical mouse on the desk possible.
4. Give me adequate pillows and bath towels. Again, well done in this aspect.
5. High-Speed Internet access should not cost me $10 or more a day. Most moderate priced hotels have this right, it's most often wireless and it's free.
6. Some bottled water in the room (that you don't charge $10 for looking at) would be great too. In some cities the tap water isn't fit to drink. It's barely tolerable to take a shower. Little Rock generally isn't that way but a couple of small bottles in the room was a welcome find.
7. It's great to have a small light source in the bathroom to keep from tripping over the bath mat on my way to the toilet. This hotel had one of those flat plug-in night lights. Fantastic.
8. Providing a blow dryer with more wind power than a chihuahua's sneeze and that isn't permanently affixed to the most inconvenient wall in the bathroom is a nice touch.
9. A real thermostat, hallelujah! While I understand from the maintenance standpoint it's far more difficult to repair a centralized type of unit than those stand-alone devices, it's not as noisy and easier to get the temperature comfortable and keep it that way.
10. Use a fitted sheet on the bed. So many hotels try to make it easier on themselves by making do with a flat sheet on the bottom. They don't stay tucked in if I move more than 3 inches to the left after climbing in bed that night.

Of course those are just a few of my little picky things I think help make for a good hotel. Some are forgivable based on the price or special circumstances, some are not. Finding a hotel that meets them all is rare. Yesterday I did find one and am quite pleased to know I've got a good place to stay anytime I visit Little Rock.

Since I can't leave well enough alone and just heap on the praise, I'll give my two small complaints about the hotel. The desk wasn't placed all that well for two guests in the room as the chair blocks the path of travel. The bathroom was a bit small, but again that really comes with having two guests in the room instead of one. Basically, I'm really reaching to find issue with the hotel. Finally! A place really worthy of a positive blogging experience.

Monday, July 14, 2008

From Boutique to Beef

I've come to a conclusion about boutique hotels; I'll be sticking to a true boutique and avoid the attempts by chain hotels to imitate the boutique style and experience.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I made a trip to Atlanta for the weekend. After hearing good things for a number of years about the W hotels chain, plus seeing their website touting their "Whatever, Whenever" service and trendy upscale style pushed us over the edge to give them a try. This was one case of a website with polish & ideals that don't translate over into the real world. Stepping off the elevators on our floor it went from all glittered t-shirts and uber-cool style to something that in its previous life was not the W Hotel. The Wow Suite we had booked didn't quite "WOW" us as we walked in, but the square footage was generous. Downsides we discovered quickly were the three light blubs that were out, the shower curtain that would blow in on your while you were taking a shower and the safe that wouldn't unlock. For the caliber of hotel this is presented to be, it should be walk-in shower and the amenities should be in fully functioning order. While we were there, we found the advertised "Whatever, Whenever" service was only available if "whatever" you wanted fit within their small parameters. Food in the restaurant was overpriced and I suspect not much more than heat & eat food service items; for the price, it was seriously lacking in quality. Having said that, it wasn't all disappointments. The room was incredibly quiet, which I value highly. The multiple views were pleasant, and the balcony would be more enjoyable if the city wasn't busy living up to it's Hot-lanta nickname. Mostly, I'm glad we got the room at a good rate.

Then there was the food. Oh my, was there ever the food! I'll start at the bottom of the barrel with Atlanta Fish Market, which by no means would normally be at the bottom of most barrels. With a very large selection of very fresh seafood, it was hard to decide what to eat. The most notable item we had was the buffalo shrimp appetizer. I'm not a buffalo-wing kind of gal, but this was good. Good enough to inspire ideas to take home and try later. I also had some of the best scallops here I've ever had; they're nothing like the rubber pucks most restaurants serve.

One of the most pleasant surprises of our trip was the Marietta Diner. (Thank you Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.) We went there for lunch and when I walked in the door I was in awe. The cakes! The minimum height requirement for a cake in that display case was at least 8" tall. That was the smallest of the cakes, and there were so many to choose from. For a pastry nut like me, it was like a slice of heaven (get it?) Anyway, carefully choosing my meal from the novel also known as a menu was challenging with that much variety. I stepped out of my usual health-conscious mode and ordered the Monte Cristo wrap, which was fantastic. Next up... "One slice of the Carmel cake, two forks please." The waiter returns with seven layers of goodness, that's seven real cake sized layers with icing and caramel between them all. The single slice arrived on its side, covering the entire dinner plate, and stood up at least 3 inches. Enormous. How one person could ever consume this much cake and not spend the next 24 hours in a sugar rush I do not know. In an effort to provide those who read my blog with a complete experience, my husband and I gave it our all and tried our best to eat the whole slice. We failed this time, but we both have vowed to return and make another run at that cake. I do believe it was the best cake I've ever eaten, and I have no doubt it was the largest.

That wasn't the only "best" I had while in Atlanta. I saw a number of reviews highly praising Rathbun's, a local hot spot. From their website, I found Rathbun's Steak. Now you're talking to me. I'm a true Ruth's Chris fan and place their fillet as the barrier to match or beat, and I finally found a steak that does it. For a true piece-of-beef that is fork tender, juicy and requires nothing else on the plate to interfere with it's simply delicious taste, this is the place to get it. Beyond the steak, the Asian meatball appetizer is impressively light in taste. The mashed potatoes were very good, but I'd have preferred the macaroni and cheese use a bit stronger of a cheese. The deserts were all exceptional, including the black-bottom creme brulee. Rathbun's Steak and Marietta Diner are two places I'd tell anyone visiting Atlanta to put on their priority list. Both are busy so be prepared to wait, and with Rathbun's Steak plan to make reservations a bit in advance.

On our way out of town, we made a stop at La Madeline's for Sunday brunch. It's one of those places everything I've tried is good, and the quiche is exceptional. It's fortunate there's not one closer to my hometown or I'd really struggle to not make it a part of my daily route.

One of the reasons we went to Atlanta was to participate in the Lexus Performance Driving Academy. While I do post on here about the roads and the food along the way, the vehicle that gets me there is important too. The class gave us time at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in a Lexus IS-F. It's a beautiful piece of machinery that handles even better than it looks. Driving it for the day was a real pleasure and loads of fun as we put it through it's paces around the road course and in the autocross. I have to give Lexus a lot of credit, any event I've attended of theirs has been put together very well. No details are forgotten, and they treat their attendees very well the entire time. There's none of that feeling like cattle being herded through long lines or a lackluster attitude from any of the staff that I've seen at a few too many events. They do a fantastic job and I would highly recommend their events to any car enthusiast.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Not what I'd call a "folly" at all

About two weeks ago we made the short trip to Memphis for a little shopping and a celebration dinner with friends. After an afternoon of roaming around Wild Oats Marketplace, Fresh Market and Penzey's, staring and sometimes drooling over all the food options dinnertime couldn't arrive soon enough.

For a number of years I've heard that Folks Folly in Memphis is an excellent steakhouse. I'd heard a few mixed reviews of the atmosphere, but looking back at the sources for those reviews I think I can disregard those as coming from those uninitiated into the foodie world. Despite that, I had high hopes for a delicious meal as I'd heard many good things recently about the food from more reliable sources. Situated in what was once a simple home that has been clearly expanded on numerous times, the restaurant has a relaxed, yet clearly upscale setting. Some areas are divided into smaller rooms thus reducing the noisy background that can occur in open floor-plan restaurants. The toile walls can be a bit nauseating, but soon that vision fades because the food arrives.

The food. I think a summary of "Outstanding" would be an understatement. Everything I tasted that evening was superb, nothing failed to meet my expectations, even set as high as they were. For those who like cheese, the Blue Cheese Mountain will provide a full serving of the day's dairy requirements. The Garlic Parmesan bread as well as all other appetizers we sampled were delicious and in generous portions, so there was plenty to share. Moving to the main course (who eats a salad at a place like this) I had a steak that ranks on par with only one other I've found, and that's at Ruth's Chris. For years I've used the filet at Ruth's as my standard by which all other steaks are judged, and finally found one that ranks in quality and taste. Despite being a steakhouse in name, I would gladly return and sample other dishes outside the beef family. The potato dishes were also in portions that encourage sharing, and were equally good. Desert choices were classic southern, including my always preferred creme brulee, which of course by now it's obvious I'll say, "Yes it was really really good." I only wish I'd saved more room to sample more deserts!

I have to say Mr. Folk and the generations that followed have brought a great taste to the table that didn't cause the restaurant to live up to it's namesake of "Folly." One visit made it clear to me why it's ranked both locally as the #1 steakhouse in Memphis many times over, as well as nationally known and respected. No doubt about it, I'll be back.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Goodbye Winter

After being cooped up all winter, by March it's time to GO. I'm ready to leave behind the weather that's only just thinking about spring, the holiday rush of work, all that. Just go somewhere warm, beautiful and tropical.

About two years ago my husband & I discovered that even as an adult, spring break is a wonderful thing. It revives the brain and body and gets me ready to get some work done with a bit more enthusiasm, which by March is something I'm usually lacking. We started with a road trip to San Antonio about 3 years ago. We didn't restrict it to a tropical locale, but rather something within a day's drive and warmer than home. San Antonio fit the bill perfectly for that spring.

The following spring was another story. A bit of arm twisting by my husband and friendly peer pressure from friends later, I reluctantly agreed to go on our first cruise. I'm not at all a water sports person. About the only good water in my book is the kind in my glass I'm drinking, or the kind I see out my hotel room window in the backdrop. I'm certainly not looking to get into said water. Why would I do that? It's fine as it is, can't I leave well enough alone?

Jump forward to this spring and in March we went on our second cruise with the same friends who talked me into the first one. This year no arm twisting was required; if anything it was me twisting their arms. I might have even said "Let's GO already!" a few times. So as no longer the total newbies to cruising, we made a few changes and learned some new lessons.

We were far more selective about the location of our cabins. One particularly long night of bad karaoke drifting up from the bar below us on our previous trip taught us to look carefully at the decks above & below. We also sprung for slight premium to get the convenience of more mid-ship rooms with balconies. Both contributed to money very well spent. With the daily changing views and the extra square footage it made spending time in our cabin quite pleasant.

We had two ports on this cruise, Ocho Rios, Jamaica and Georgetown, Grand Cayman. The advise of friends who had previously visited Jamaica was simply "don't go." My experience was quite the opposite, I say go there but make sure to get a good local tour guide. After reading several recommendations for Marva Shaw online, we booked with her. She and her tour company Know Jamaica definitely made the trip great. It was interesting to see how beautiful the country is, while many of it's people live at poverty levels. Only the wealthy are educated, as there's no public education system. If I recall correctly, the unemployment rate hovers around 30% there. It's sad to see a population so financially depressed in such a breathtaking setting. A private tour of the botanical gardens and a trip to Dunns River Falls make the day active yet an easy pace. We finished off with a meal at BibiBips for some authentic Jamaican food despite its location in a tourist area. The local Red Stripe Beer battered shrimp were excellent as well as the jerk chicken, local style fish and bammy, a local preparation for cassava root.

Georgetown was more polished and clearly catered to a wealthier citizenry and visitors. We spent most of our day here on the beach, lazing around in the water. We caught a taxi to a nearby access point and found a place to relax. As I mentioned before, water sports aren't my thing; a more accurate statement is I'm simply non-buoyant. However this was the single most wonderful stretch of ocean I've ever seen. It was so calm and relaxing even I was willing to wade out into the water far beyond my normal comfort zone. This is one place I could go and really spend some time at the beach and even in the water, without clinging to the sand in utter fear. (Photo at left is from the botanical gardens.)

Other things we learned on this cruise... Not all ships and cruise lines are created equal. For a number of years I've heard that Royal Caribbean is the cruise ship line. Had I not cruised on Celebrity before, I'd have been fairly impressed. But I had, so it paled in comparison. The quality of food, the overall attentiveness of most of the staff and most of all the attention to detail simply isn't what it is at Celebrity. The minimal price difference is worth the step up in quality. Our ship for this trip, Navigator of the Seas, was immense and certainly had nearly everything on board we could possibly want. Food was plentiful enough there was no need to ever go hungry. The quality just wasn't quite there.

So despite a drop in quality from the ship itself, the trip was great. For cruising, I do think taking along friends makes it even more fun. It doesn't hurt we travel well together and all really like to eat, be lazy, and then eat some more. No doubt I am looking forward to next March and our return to the Caribbean on one of the newest Celebrity ships.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

On the Road Finding "Real Food"

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I took a trip out to Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Heading east through the very fringes of the Tennessee after leaving our hotel in Knoxville (Country Inns & Suites Knoxville West, and I do recommend it for a nice quiet place to stay) the hunger set in. A quick search on Trip Advisor and we'd decided that a place called "Pal's Sudden Service" sounded interesting, and it was in the top 10 for nearby Johnson City. We plugged it in the GPS, took the interstate exit and spent the next fifteen minutes hunting for this mystery location. A phone call later and we found out it was in the food court of the nearby mall. Food court food on vacation? No, that simply will not do. Another check of the GPS and Trip Advisor and we decided any place named Cootie Brown's couldn't be all bad.

Cootie Brown's "Real Food" didn't disappoint either. Homemade hot tamales, spiral sliced chips and tasty sandwiches made for a very pleasant lunch. The whole place has real character, the kind you only find from a restaurant filled with faded yellow painted chairs, booths made from old carnival rides and a low outdoor barrier wall made from old coffee cans, concrete and liberal amounts of blue paint. The tamales were excellent, and I don't think I could go there without eating the chips. It was so good in fact, we stopped there again on the way home just to have more of those delicious chips and take in the quirky atmosphere. Despite the diverse menu we still gravitated toward those chips, but the pizza and burritos didn't go back to the kitchen. It's the kind of place I wish was closer to home and truly lives up to the name "Real Food."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two Tasty Treats for Tuesday

Two tasty meals out in one day? Sure! It doesn't happen often, but Tuesday I had the good fortune of two meals that made me want to leave the kitchen.
It starts with a bit of diner food in the middle of the sticks, also known as the Dairy Shack in Waldenburg, Arkansas. Leave it to your local diner to come up with a lunch special of Mexican Chicken, Fried Rice and green beans. Mexican, Oriental and southern home cookin' all in one plate. Interesting combination but it was surprisingly good. Being a good southern dairy shack, their tater tots are cooked to a perfect GBD (golden brown and oh-so delicious.)

After a day roaming around Little Rock, Arkansas, my husband and I finished the day with a fantastic meal at Sonny Williams Steak Room. The steak, sea bass, wild rice and mashed potatoes were all exceptionally good. I always rate steaks on a scale with Ruth Chris' filet as a "Perfect 10." This one was probably a 9 out of 10, which speaks highly. The real cincher was desert. The Vanilla Bean Hazelnut Crème Brûlée that is truly one of the best Crème Brûlées (is that word?) I've ever had anywhere. I'm always impressed when someone gets the texture, temperature and flavor all down just exactly like it should be. If nothing else, it's worth going there for the desert alone.

Despite the two good meals, I'm still ready to spend a little time cooking. I've eaten out so much lately I'm starting to miss my kitchen. At least I've got a family reunion to attend this weekend, that gives me an opportunity to get back in there and have a little fun. Cooking for groups, yea!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Italy Stop #4 : Florence (Firenze)

Of all the places we visited, Florence is the one place I could visit for an extended time. In Rome, there's so many famous historical things to see and all the hustle of a major city blended into one. Pisa has one big albeit crooked bell tower and the charm of a smaller town. Pompeii, well it's Pompeii, and it's a phenomenal site in itself. Florence is still different. It's a small city, with lots of great food, markets, shopping and the like all within an easy walk. The people are friendly and it is more of what I suppose I would have expected of a European city, if I had really any expectations formed in my mind. The touches of great artists over the centuries grace the architecture. It's beautiful, relaxing and probably my favorite city of the entire trip. I did make a stop to see Michaelangelo's statue David, as well as the cathedral that plays host to the tomb of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michaelangelo and other higher ups in the Catholic world. The Grand Hotel Mediterraneo, our hotel in Florence, had a unique touch in the room; they provided a nice map with two marked routes for those guests who like to walk or run for exercise. It is attached to a string and has a flat pocket to hold a room key snug while running. Despite mostly rainy weather, I caught one morning that was only slightly drizzling and took advantage of the map. Just to run along the banks of the Arno river with the morning traffic bustling by was a wonderful experience I won't soon forget.

We did spend one night in Venice, and while I can say I've been there, I'm not in a rush to go back. The narrow foot-traffic only streets were interesting, and the few shops that were open had quite the variety of goods from the latest in haute couture to the downright quirky. It was easy to get lost in the maze of shops and streets. Admittedly it was near the end of my trip and I was pretty exhausted.

One thing did stand out, I had the single best lasagna I've ever had in my life at a local eatery in Venice. It left me rethinking my own recipe; actually the whole trip has me starting completely over with a new take on Italian dishes. As much as I aim to find the local restaurants when traveling, sometimes it's difficult to do. That wasn't the case in Italy. I had McDonald's one time, and even then it was a menu item they don't serve in the US.

Overall I am very glad I made the trip to Italy. It was everything I couldn't begin to expect and more. Being surrounded by history at every turn is a different feeling than I've experienced anywhere else in my travels. As I've told a few friends, here in the US things are considered "old" at 200 years and gain a "wow" factor by being closer to 300 years old. In Italy however, it requires adding an extra zero to that number to get even the slightest nod. Realizing just how much we have and yet haven't changed as humans in that 2000 (or more) years provides a perspective that just can't be gained anywhere here in the US. At least not anywhere I've traveled, yet.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Italy Stop #3: Pompei

I'm not sure I can begin to describe Pompeii and even begin to do it justice. Maybe I hadn't really woken up from the 6:30am bus departure time to get there, but it made an impression on my slightly groggy mind. I think even stone awake it would have taken me in. It really was one of the most facinating places I visited the entire trip.

I didn't realize just how large Pompeii was until I got there. It's not just a building or two, its an entire city. Mount Vesuvius might have stopped the residents lives, but it did it in a way that perfectly captured daily life at a precise moment. I found it surprising how little day-to-day living has changed today. With the way things are preserved, I could easily visualize the people bustling about, the chariots rolling down the streets, people cooking, shopping, having a drink at the corner bar. Their homes were connected like modern day condos. Mosaics decorated the floors and walls, greeting friends or warning foes to beware of the family's dog. Just walking down the streets knowing many years ago someone else walked down this same street, just heading home after a busy day of work seemed almost surreal. The ruins here aren't like other areas in Italy with partial buildings, incomplete columns, broken tablets and the like. They're far more complete, creating an environment that I could immerse myself in and get a better sense of what life was like then, more so than with any other place I visited.

Groggy or not, Pompeii was very well worth early morning trip it took to get there.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Italy Stop #2: Pisa

A small town with one very unusual claim to fame, Pisa was one of the most memorable places I visited. My traveling companions thought I was a little crazy to pay 13 Euros just for the privilege of climbing up over 7 stories worth of stairs. I could get that at the hotel and not pay a penny extra. But for me it was a challenge, so 13 Euros lighter I got in the queue to the top and made my way up.

While the angle of the building is visually noticeable from the outside, it creates an even stranger sensation while climbing the tower. It's narrow and as the steps go up and the leaning gets more pronounced, the indention into the stone steps where the millions of feet have walked shifts from side to side. As it gets closer to the top, the last area of steps is so narrow that it was impossible to stand with my hands on my hips.

At the top, the view is beautiful, and looking down at the ant-sized people below I could get a sense of just how far up this tower was. Finally I could fully appreciate how it really was worth the effort and expense. The railings there were pretty basic and small , leaving a very unobstructed view of the entire town of Pisa.

So overall, Pisa is not for the financially conservative, claustrophobic, over-sized, unfit or someone with Aeroacrophobia. Yet they didn't seem to have any trouble selling tickets despite an overcast and somewhat rainy day.

Something I have noticed after visiting Italy (most especially Pisa) and since then Jamaica is how over-guarded we are in the USA. The serious lack of guard rails at the top of the tower in Pisa, the non-existent hand rails all the way up, the numerous areas of slick marble (it was raining that day) around the outside with minimal railings at best; these would have never made it past the legal department for any attraction in the USA. I saw similar things going on in Jamaica. Climbing a slightly steep and rushing waterfall sans any protective gear might seem like a joke of an idea here, but in Jamaica the guides were doing it barefoot and wearing just a pair of swim shorts. It seems here at home we miss out on some really interesting things to see and do because of the few who will sue the swim shorts off the owners of said attractions because their precious snowflake fell down and skinned his knee. That being said, that sense of safety is kind of nice and I think a tad under appreciated, until I watched a woman fall down hard and repeatedly on wet rocks as she makes her attempt to climb the waterfalls. That's going to leave some bruises. Not cool.

What is Aeroacrophobia? The fear of open heights. Yes, I had to look this up to be sure.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Italy Stop #1: Rome

First destination of my trip to Italy was Rome. It has the feel of any large city, but with very historical overtones. Everywhere something with either historical significance appears in view or at least seems to be very very old. The exterior of my hotel, Prime Hotel Saint John, blended into the side street's aged look, yet the interior was completely modern at every turn. The hotel was quite clean and as quiet as a city center hotel can be. Within easy walking distance there were a few restaurants and bakeries, plus a restaurant at the hotel.

All the hotels we stayed at in Italy had really exceptional breakfasts. We generally didn't stop our touring for lunch, so by dinner that evening I was quite thankful for the good breakfast. Most notable was the Orange juice. First, it wasn't orange in color at all, it was red. It was also really really good. As was the Pompeii grapefruit juice and some concoction they called "ACE," a blend that involved orange, carrot and I don't recall was else. It wasn't something I'd have expected to like, but while in Italy I wanted to try anything new I could get.

Something I discovered about the food overall that didn't really strike me until I returned home was the lack of salt and sugar. For about the first week after I got back, everything tasted like it was heavily salted or had way too much sugar. I promptly adjusted my habits here at home and have for the most part kept the salt cut back when cooking. I should have caught the clue that the salt was so much lighter by two of my traveling companions actions... they were reaching for the salt at every meal. I think I might have added a touch to some eggs, once. It's amazing how little I missed the salt and how much I noticed it's presence at home.

Back to the tourist must-see bits. The Coliseum is truly a sight to see. In a word, it's gargantuan. It's impossible to get across the sheer size and the awe inspiring technology the builders and designers employed. Getting a guided tour was the way to go for this as the guide provided more explanation as to what things were, how they were used and how the building has come to be in the condition it's in today.

Visible from the Coliseum as well as just a short walk away are both the Arch of Constantine and the Roman Forum & Senate. We didn't take any special tour of either, but again the sheer size of both was impressive. Just from walking around and seeing what is there now, it's easy to tell this was the central hub of activity for a thriving metropolis. Like the coliseum, it's amazing the technology that was needed and used to build such tall and imposing structures using solid stone and even concrete.

The easiest way for us to see the city was to take a bus tour. They are inexpensive and were plentiful, and we could just hop off at whatever stop we liked. Our stop was the Vatican. Starting with the Vatican museum, we walked through hall after all of paintings, artwork, tapestries, statues, carvings... the list goes on and on. Everywhere I turned there was art. A window frame? Can't leave it as is, it must be heavily decorated with painting and textures. From the floors of flawless stone to the ceilings painstakingly painted by masters such as Michelangelo, every inch is a piece of art. And then, in the middle of these hallways lies the Sistine Chapel. My only wish there was for better lighting. It's large and some of the more famous artwork adorns the ceiling of this chapel. Despite a crowd of visitors, it was relatively quiet in the room. I can only imagine what visiting the Vatican must be like for a Catholic; just the sense of patience and devotion required by the artists alone to create their artwork is enough to me. It's also very obvious that the current caretakers are taking their jobs seriously, and if the original artists were here today I am sure they'd be quite appreciative.

After a few days in Rome, we packed up and took a train trip to Florence for a few days. More of that coming soon!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Crossing the Atlantic

I just returned from what I expect will be my first of many trips to Europe. The whole experience can be summed up in one word: Wow. It's the little differences that I found most facinating, but there are plenty of big ones you can't miss either.

Let's start with the overview of the trip. Nine days with a group of three other women, taking a traveling view of Italy. Transportation would include plane, taxi, bus, metro, local train, Eurostar, water bus and the most often used mode would be walking, a lot of walking. Plans were to visit Rome, Pisa, Florence, Naples and Venice if time and energy allowed for them all.

Just getting there was entertaining. We took a direct flight from Chicago to Rome Fiumicino airport. We were able to get Business Class seats for the trip, which sounded great to me. Then I saw what that entailed... woah. First class on domestic flights pales in comparison to this. Going anywhere internationally, this is the way to travel. Each passenger has plenty of space and seats that have more adjustments than a Mercedes. Once in flight, the attendants provided the laptop-sized personal tv's that had a sizable selection of movies and currently running tv shows. Those came with your personal Bose noise-canceling headphones too. As a relatively frequent traveler, my husband discovered those a few years ago and we haven't had a flight without them since. But to have them provided, that was a surprise. Also each seat was equipped with a cigarette-lighter style power plug, so I arrived with my Ipod charged and ready to go after using it as much as I wanted on the flight. The 5 course meal provided on real china, with real silverware was actually good. I know, airline food... good? Rarely do the two go together, but in this case it was an accurate, if surprising, statement. But enough about the flight already...

On one hand, Rome is just another big city. However, the staggering amount of well preserved and documented history found in this city does change that a bit. Everywhere is history. Considering that "old" there takes on an entirely different meaning than we find in the USA, it really is something to see and simply absorb. After arriving in Rome about 10am, we checked our luggage at the hotel and went for a short stroll to see a few things. A few blocks from our hotel was the Colosseum. Just the sight of this massive structure was a wake-up call... "Yes, you really are looking at what you've previously only seen in photos." We would wait until the next day for a tour, but just to stand in the piazza and see it, the Arch of Constantine and the Roman Forum nearby was indescribable.

Some general observances I made very quickly about Rome proved themselves true over the days we were there. The cars fascinated me, probably a bit to the annoyance of my traveling companions. My own cars at home would seem ghastly and big in contrast with the city cars that populated the roman streets. Smart cars were everywhere, as well as all the small sized vehicle offerings from Fiat, Peugeot, Citroen, Mercedes, the occasional Ford and some I didn't recognize at all. The vast majority were models not sold in the US at all, and would be nearly laughed at on the street as looking like "toys." But at nearly $8 a gallon for gas, who can blame them for wanting the most fuel efficiency possible? Toss into the mix at least one scooter for every three cars on the road as well. With this crush of compact cars and 2 wheeled cheap transportation on the road, traffic was lunacy. Lanes? What lanes? Drivers simply drove wherever they wanted, the idea of lanes was merely a suggestion. Scooter riders were the real daredevils, splitting the suggested lanes at every opportunity, taking full advantage of their narrow size and ability to drive over most any obstacle in the way, including pedestrians. Traffic and the drivers there are simply insane. Maybe outside of the city center it's not that way, but inside, pandemonium rules the road.

I'll be posting more of the experience including a few pictures... coming soon!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A quick weekend in Northwest Arkansas

This corner of the state is growing rapidly and after visiting, I can see why. The area is beautiful and with the size of the overall area, the conveniences of a major city there there too. So is the traffic, not a pleasant thing for the residents I'm sure.

My husband and I stayed at the Hyatt Place in Rogers. I've heard of this chain but not had an opportunity to try one until now. It's the large hotel chain's answer to the demand for a hotel that has more the boutique and upscale feel without being priced vastly higher than your average Holiday Inn. It is a step up in style, quality and the rooms have several well thought-out amenities. A large plasma tv with about every conceivable input to allow you to see your business presentation beyond your laptop, a very comfortable lounging area in the room, stone counter tops and a small wet bar area; just nice upgrades you typically see in a more upscale, 4 star or better hotel room. My only complaint about the hotel was our room location. We were directly across the hall from the ice maker. Ordinarily that wouldn't be too bad, but since it was a slow weekend and the hotel had maybe 12 occupied rooms, the defrost cycle ran every 3 hours and was horribly loud. Inexcusably so. I would recommend the hotel, but check your room location first. Also call for reservations, the rates on the phone were considerably less than online. (Usually it's the opposite.)

Our plan was to have dinner at Doe's Eat Place, a small chain that has garnered rave reviews. Then as I was flipping through a local magazine, I found an ad for it. The first Ruth's Chris in Arkansas just opened in November. Instant change of plans! Dinner was as wonderful as expected, and I sampled a new dish too. The ziti with cheese and caramelized onions was fantastic, good enough that I could have eaten it by itself as a meal. Besides, the Doe's Eat Place location in Bentonville is a franchise, and I think I will save the experience for the original in Greenville, Mississippi.

On our trip home, we stopped at a Taco John's in Russellville. I haven't been to one in years, and after our stop I realized it's a good thing I am forced to avoid them. I would eat there about daily, it's just that much better than the Taco Bells found on every corner at home. I didn't have a single bad item, all hot and very tasty.

It was a great weekend getaway and I'll certainly put the area on my list for a return visit. The scenery is great, the food choices plentiful, amenities are handy but it's also easy to get out of town and find some great driving roads all within a short distance. With all these features, I can certainly see the attraction to the area.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Cajun Delight in Memphis

My husband and I took off to Memphis on a recent Saturday for a bit of shopping. As part of any good shopping excursion, we planned out the food destination as well. Since it seems we've been to a number of good restaurants in the area, we looked online for something new to try. On one of those ever present "top 10" lists we found Owen Brennan's. It's a Cajun / Creole restaurant that received pretty good reviews elsewhere online too. After my visit, I'd definitely rank it as worth making a return trip. One way it differentiates from other restaurants in today's offerings is the portions; one entree isn't enough to feed an entire family of four. While I still couldn't finish my meal, I was presented with a reasonable amount of food. Also they understand that the terms creole and Cajun are not just replacements for "hot." They encompass a range of flavors that fit in the genre without being so hot as to leave me gulping down water as fast as the waiter could refill the glass. In the dish I chose, the Shrimp & Andouille with Grits, the andouille was the only item that failed to impress me, but the mushrooms incorporated were some of the best I've had anywhere. The key lime pie is fresh made on premises and was tangy without being overly so, and again a perfect portion size. Also of note was the atmosphere; it is quite reminiscent of New Orleans and surprisingly both attractive and spacious for even an upscale a strip-mall location.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I ate the Whole Hog

Every once in a while a friend comes along with a great idea. This time the great idea was "let's to go Memphis on Saturday... we can stop by Fresh Market and go try Whole Hog Cafe." Yes! So I spent the remainder of the week avoiding any other bbq and looking forward to the short trip.

I didn't quite eat the whole pig but as good as the bbq was, I could have. This time I got to Whole Hog Cafe well before closing time and it was definitely worth the stop. I sampled the pulled pork, which being a proper Southern gal, is what bbq is all about. The variety of 6 sauces at the table
makes it tough to decide which is best. I tasted all but the Mustard based type, which I still can't figure out why someone had the thought "man that smoked meat is good, let's put some MUSTARD on it" and actually decided it was good. Not that I dislike mustard, it just doesn't fit in the world of bbq in my world. Sweet, spicy, tomato, molasses, vinegar... I'm not otherwise biased, I can appreciate them all for their own goodness.

I also tasted the bbq nachos, which like the rest of the items weren't skimpy on the portions. Getting to sample the grub with friends has it's benefits, as I have it on reliable word that the bbq beef sandwich and the bbq pork topped baked potato are also both good choices. I was definitely right a couple of posts back, I'm very glad I'll have a location nearby soon so I won't have to drive so far to get their delicious bbq.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Imagine a Restaurant

After my recommended restaurant experience in Little Rock turned out disappointing for dinner, I got another suggestion from another reliable source. This one paid off quite nicely. (Thanks!) The name of the place alone hinted that it would be something worth noting and it followed through.

Since I was in Little Rock, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get some of the "good stuff" available at Fresh Market. Living in a smaller town has it's benefits but the lack of ingredient options sometimes does limit what fun foods can come from my kitchen. So when I'm in a larger city with a selection of either specialty foods or the larger gourmet grocery stores I like to make at least a quick stop in for a few items. While the internet nets me a plethora of sources, I just can't beat sometimes browsing around the store for new goodies.

So I wouldn't want to buy every interesting gourmet delicacy in The Fresh Market, we first stopped by Imagine a Restaurant, located in the same shopping complex. It was a really tasty stop for lunch. The club sandwich my husband ordered was great, and the Ham, Brie and Apple sandwich I ate was delicious. I chose the sweet potato chips and he chose the regular potato chips, both made fresh in-house and both excellent. After making some fresh potato chips at home this weekend, I can't imagine why more restaurants skip out on this simple but tasty dish. I'll definitely put this on the list of restaurants I hope to visit again sometime this year.

After I mentioned Whole Hog Cafe in my previous post, a bit of interesting news has brought it back to my attention. In our local newspaper this week, it was announced that Whole Hog Cafe will be opening in my town, probably around late March. I won't have to travel to Little Rock or Memphis just to sample this new-to-me BBQ, so while they're taking away the travel it does mean I can have as much as I want, whenever I like. I think I will enjoy the convenience.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Greetings for 2008

It's about time I finally ate or went somewhere noteworthy! The holidays didn't provide me with a lot of blog fodder, but a short trip to a small town in Tennessee visiting relatives did give me one cozy little restaurant to mention. The Elms Restaurant in Selmer, Tennessee has that southern style service that's missing in many places today. The waitresses know the patrons, they call them and everyone "honey" and sincerely care if the diners are happy. Between the warm sincere service and some simple, tasty food it's a welcome stop for lunch or dinner. Of note in my book were the fried cheese sticks since they were battered instead of breaded, which is my personal favorite.

Last week my husband and I were in Little Rock for one night, and after making a pass by Whole Hog Cafe and feeling too much sympathy for the employees to go in at 20 minutes to closing and order dinner, we ended up at Julie's. The restaurant had come with good recommendations from reliable sources. While I think it had the potential to be a good restaurant, it failed to deliver. The chef must have been quite paranoid about under cooking the shrimp as despite the good flavors I can imagine the bottom of my running shoes would be less rubbery in texture. The other items we had were merely ok at best, and the baked potato was baked and past its prime long before we arrived.

So for desert, my husband & I skipped out on the offerings at Julie's and opted for Krispy Kreme. I know it's just a donut chain but in this case it's worth mentioning. Yes, the donuts are good. Really good. It's the service that gets my attention. At this location the service has been fantastic every single time. While I haven't been in that often, it's been consistently good each time, good enough for it to stand out against the crowd of mediocrity.

I have plenty of trips planned for this year, including a Caribbean cruise I just booked this week. As I like to call it, "blog fodder" will be plentiful this year I hope. As always, I've resolved to take a little more time to enjoy my hobby of cooking this year, but I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunities for roads and eats along the way too.